Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Initiation of Sarah (1978)

You know, when I think "cutting edge horror", I don't really think "kitschy Lifetime-style '70s television movie." But Final Girl called the tune and I can dance with the best of 'em.

I tend to be irony-adverse and my first impression of The Initiation of Sarah was largely negative. The music is disco, the camera work is zoomy, and everyone's hair is so feathered. I cooked up my Trader Joe's-brand pasta and settled in.

Turned out the movie wasn't half bad.

Okay, it ain't scary. Things are a little too bright and cheerful to really get under the skin, but it's a fine little story. While many of the characters in the movie are bitchy sorority stereotypes, I found that I genuinely cared about the lead characters.

The story revolves around Sarah and Patty Goodwin, two incoming freshman trying to get into the prestigious Alpha Nu Gamma, which their legacy mother has been pushing them to join since childhood. The charming Patty is immediately accepted, but the withdrawn Sarah is cruelly rejected and sent to Pi Epsilon Delta, the nerd sorority. The basically decent Patty starts becoming subsumed by her bitchy sorority sisters and an increasingly isolated and angry Sarah comes under that thrall of a creepy sorority mom with a daaaaaaaaaaaaa.....


rrrrrrk secret.

The movie hits the exact same story beats as Carrie as the troubled outsider slowly comes into her own power, but unlike poor doomed Carrie White, Sarah winds up leading the surly outsiders of Pi Epsilon Delta and teaching them how to stand up to the society bitches of Alpha Nu Gamma. She also forms relationships with other people, particularly the squirrelly young violinist with the obvious crush on Sarah (don't try to deny it) and the sleazy older teacher's assistant.

Overall, I liked the movie. It ain't scary, but it's well-written and acted, particularly with the legendary turn by Shelly Winters as the diabolical Ms. Hunter, who interjects a certain satanic theatricality to the proceedings. It's worth seeing The Initiation of Sarah for her alone.

Also, Morgan Fairchild looks hot soaking wet.

Here's my question: where are the telekinetic payback movies for dudes? These angry teenage psychic stories tend toward stories of repressed feminist rage but high school screws everyone up. I would love to see a reimagining of Elephant with rage-fuelled telekinesis.

This post is part of the Final Girl Film Club. For those of you who dug this post, welcome to my humble little blog. I'm a big horror fan and I like to apply my highly-honed bullshitting skills to the stuff I enjoy. I cover movies, books, games, and music. Welcome aboard!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Play Dead

Play Dead: When I went to see Play Dead I was lead onstage, stuffed in a steel casket, beaten with a crowbar, soaked in sulfuric acid, and my dessicated corpse was fed into a floor grate to the ghost of Albert Fish. I apparently went mad in the afterlife when the showman attempted to contact my spirit and I began chucking furniture around the theatre. It took the spirit of a sexy nude medium to bring me back from the dead.

The experience was one of the most memorable I've had as a horror fan.

Play Dead is an off-Broadway play/performance art piece created by Teller of Penn and Teller fame. It's a nifty fusion of ghost story, seance, and magic show, where famed Coney Island performer Todd Robbins tells a series of stories about madness, murder, and the Beyond.

At first, the play is simply a ghoulishly good time. Robbins' performance is pure Cryptkeeper glee. He unfurls the tales with such captivating theatrical delight that I felt like I was around the campfire hearing ghost stories as a kid. He accentuates the tales with amazing stage effects and feats of illusion. He also brings the audience into the fun. There are moments in the play when all lights, including the exit lights were shut off, leaving the audience in pitch darkness. My weirdo friend took the opportunity to freak me out by poking me while we were sitting in the darkness and I jumped about 30 feet in the air.

All the ghost stories are all creepy fun and it's worth seeing just for the fun of it, but the second part of the show moved me very deeply.

I've always found it fascinating that the most famous illusionists are the most vocal opponents of sham mediums. They know the tricks and take great umbrage at opportunists using them to take advantage of people's grief. While the end of the show gets a little melodramatic, Play Dead's message is ultimately moving: the horror genre exists because death is a part of all of our lives. We mythologize our fears in order to explore them and ultimately make a sort of uncomfortable peace with them.

Go see this.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Coming back to the blog

Me as Prince Charming. With the chick from The Grudge. Halloween 2010.

Fear not gentle readers! I have not abandoned you.

Well, maybe I did a little. Most of the creative and critical juices that usually go to this blog have been going to a horror comic I'm working on with a coworker. Maybe it's gonna forever change the face of popular entertainment or maybe we'll get distracted the next time someone tosses a shiny thing into my cubicle, but I've been happily tinkering on other stuff and have turned away from the blog I call home.

Which is not to say I've taken a hiatus from horror. Lord no. I'm still watching the movies and reading the books and playing the game and listening to the songs and buying the Halloween costumes. As I type this at my desk at work (thank you, site outages) I have a copy of Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti on the desk.

When I left off, I had begun an article on The Last Exorcism, a film I greatly enjoyed. There was a lot of stuff to unpack about that movie and I sorta froze up. So, rather than try to cover the VAST swath of horror junk I've done this summer, I'll try to summarize very briefly:

The Last Exorcism: While it's a little too flip to call this the new Exorcist, I thought TLE was one of the most remarkable horror films I've seen recently. The films basically follow the same plot, but by replacing the rigid dogma of the Catholic Church with the provincial fanaticism of small town America made the movie feel oddly more contemporary. I liked the fact that the narrative follows the preacher more than the family. He's charismatic and compelling and he was one of the strongest characters in horror history. Everyone in the movie is very interesting and engaging, from the fundamentalist father to the combative camera crew. Finally, I liked the fact that, unlike The Exorcist, the movie retains the possibility that all the possession stuff could just be a figment of the girl's damaged mind. The only problem I had with the movie was the ridiculous ending, which I gather derailed the film for a lot of moviegoers, but I'll give up five terrible minutes for 85 good ones.

Teatro Grottesco: I just finished Thomas Ligotti's anthology and I've got to say that I'm clearly not smart enough to appreciate his work. It's the sort of thing that fundamentally won't click with me as Ligotti's horror style is a bit too surrealistic for my maddeningly linear sensibilities, but he's good. His style is Lovecraftian in the truest sense of the word; rather than recycling Lovecraft's gods from the beyond with unpronounceable names, he infuses his stories with a nameless dread as damaged narrators sink deeper and deeper into the terrible horrors inflicted on them.

My only real complaint with the anthology is that they almost completely lack characterization. All the stories are told in first person, all use precise speech, all the narrators so sort of psychological malady, many are artists or have artistic friends, many have stomach ailments, and so on. He's great at creating tension but there wasn't much stuff for me to grab on to. Still, I'm coming back for his other work.

Pigeons From Hell: Possibly the most ridiculously-titled story I've ever encountered, PfH is one of the most famous stories ever written by Conan creator Robert E. Howard. I read while plowing through an anthology of horror tales. While Howard was an amazing pulp writer, his stories sort of flow together and trying to plow through his entire catalog in one sitting is a bad idea. The book also included Black Canaan, which was probably the most racist thing I've ever seen put to paper. I was about to set the book aside after that, but over the years I'd heard enough positive things about PfH, including Stephen King saying it's one of the best horror stories ever written, that I wanted to give it a shot.

PfH is one of the scariest horror stories I've ever read in my life.

I realized recently that I seldom read horror the way it's meant to be read. I read horror in bathrooms and on subways. It's usually well lit and I'm usually surrounded by oppressive New York City crowds and I'm rarely in the right environment to be too affected by the stories. I read PfH in bright daylight on the subway platform and it still scared me.

It's got everything a good horror story needs. There's a decaying southern manor, a couple of walking corpses, a guy with an axe in his head, voodoo curses, the most trusting sheriff in all fiction, vigorous manly combat, and evil local legends. I can't recommend this tale highly enough.

Dracula: The Un-Dead: I'd seen this book around for some time but I didn't pick it up until recently. Written as a sequel to the original Bram Stoker novel and co-authored by a Dracula expert and Stoker's great grand nephew, the book has been drubbed for essentially rewriting the original story and making Dracula a romantic, misunderstood hero. For what is meant to be a loving tribute to the original, the book almost completely invalidates everything that's come before.

However, if you can get past all that, it's a ripping adventure story. It has the pacing and derring-do of a fun action film. There are evil monsters, swashbuckling heroes, sexy sex, and carriage chases through the streets of London.

The book is a little too concerned with retreading and reinterpreting old ground, and it's efforts to cast Dracula in a sympathetic light ultimately renders the heroic adventurers of the original novel as a bunch of embittered, violent lunatics. The lead hero, the spoiled actor son of Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray, comes off as spoiled, hard headed, and unlikable. But if you're willing to see this as more fanfic than proper follow-up then it's an entertaining action horror novel.

Soul: Soul was the last thing that really scared the crap out of me.

I found this game through Xbox 360s indie game store, where it was a featured selection for Halloween. It's a simple, beautiful little game. You guide a glowing little soul out of a dead body and lead it up into heaven. If you accidentally bump into any of the walls or the blobby demons, you have to start the area from the beginning. Simple enough.

I didn't expect the fucking girl.

You see her about three screens in, this strange little creature standing in your way. As you accidentally brush past her, the screen suddenly changes to this terrifying bitch screaming at you. When this first happened, I jumped 30 feet in the air, screaming my head off. Once I calmed down, I realized that I was playing a high-tech version of the old maze game.

So it's a scam, but it's a brilliantly done scam. The art is beautiful, the gameplay is compelling, and if you fail enough, the chick comes out and scares you again. Because the game requires a lot of concentration, she gets you when you're not ready.

And, hours later, her face kept popping up in the dark. Damn her.

Piranha 3D: I saw Piranha 3D completely drunk.

My office has a lot of celebratory liquor they leave unguarded and I decided that four shots of vodka and four beers would be a good way to start my weekend off. I was planning on going with an NYC Horror Movie meetup group, but I grossly miscalculated how much alcohol I could handle.

I had a great time.

I don't know what I would have thought about the movie sober. The stuff I remember wasn't exactly subtle, but it was a fun little exploitation flick with tons of "Oh Shit" moments. While it rankles my fake-intellectual, ultra liberal point of view, I have to admit that sometimes blood and boobs can be a lot of fun.

Predators: This was supposed to be the movie that saves the Predator franchise. It took the Predators away from their battles with aliens and brought the series back to it's roots: a bunch of tough guys out in the jungle behind hunted by an unfathomable adversary.

It doesn't quite work. Some of the characters are a little ridiculous (Yakuza? Serial killer doctor?), the dialogue displays a bit too much meta humor, and there's too much of thing I can't stand where characters talk about their motivations too directly, so they grow too obvious as the movie goes on. Ultimately, however, the filmmakers strove to emulate the first film so closely that they made essentially an inferior copy. I basically enjoyed it, but when I left the theater I couldn't help but think that it was a film that didn't need to be made.

Adrian Brody kicked ass, though.

Let Me In: I really wanted this movie to succeed even before it came out. I knew they were planning a near shot-for-shot remake of the original, but I just wanted more Americans to see this movie and realize that vampires still have some viciousness to them, that they're not all bad-boy romance novel leads.

Silly me, I should have realized that people aren't actually interested in scary vampires. Let Me In flopped, which is a shame because it's a really good remake. It jettisons a lot of the extraneous stuff around the characters (no CGI cat attack) and keeps the focus square on the kids. The vampire girl is much less alien and cold this time around, the vampire's caregiver is given greater characterization and pathos, and the boy is much more vulnerable and less special needsy.

The movie hits all the same notes in more or less the same way and I did at times wonder, like Predators, why they bothered remaking it in the first place. Still, this was an excellent horror film and I'm sorry it tanked as hard as it did.

Warlock: Warlock is one of those weird movies I have a slightly overblown sense of nostalgia for. I remember loving as a kid, especially Julian Sands' performance as the diabolical, flamboyantly evil warlock. I remembered the Warlock movies as being action-packed romps with a villain so gleefully melodramatic that he came off like a Saturday morning cartoon character with the chains off.

I recently rewatched the first film and I have to say that it still holds up very well. The warlock is still completely entertaining and I really loved the buddy-comedy duo that goes after him. I especially liked the flighty party girl who accompanies the grim crusader in his quest to capture the warlock. She comes off as a real person; mercurial and impatient, but with genuine steel in her spine. I liked how spooked the normally-unflappable crusader was when he came across his own grave. Finally, I loved the weird toe-and-thumb cuffs the crusader binds the warlock in. They're both authentic-seeming, and absolutely ridiculous. This movie, distributed by legendary genre studio Cannon, was made in the halcyon days before CGI and all the flashy effects work looks very quaint and cool.

There's really nothing wrong with this movie. Give it another look.

I Spit On Your Grave Remake: Whoa.

Many, many moons ago, I was really into martial arts and wound up assisting in a self-defense course at the community college I attended after high school. The vast majority of the students were young women and I eventually sussed out that most were there out of a very real fear that they would be attacked and sexually assaulted. As a dude, you don't really think about that sort of thing. When I walked through a dark campus after my late classes, I was worried about getting jumped and robbed, not about getting violated. Coming to that realization was very eye-opening.

I saw I Spit during a free preview screening. The vast majority of the audience were women.

Rape/revenge films are always a touchy subject and I Spit is easily the most notorious of the lot, thanks in particular to Roger Ebert's scathing review of the original. He wasn't much kinder to the remake, but I think in his extreme patronizing, that he missed something of the point. I Spit is an ugly film, and maybe we are ugly people for wanting to watch it, but I can't say I really felt titillated by the painfully long rape scene. It was horrifying and heartbreaking and the viewer is forced to see things from Jennifer's point of view. Jennifer's assailants aren't sexy or masculine. They're just cruel and she is absolutely vulnerable in the face of their cruelty.

I hear a lot about the appeal of horror is that it allows us to confront, in a small safe way, the terrible aspects of life. I refuse to believe that there weren't people in the audience who were projecting themselves onto Jennifer and seeing what her situation would feel like.

The second half of the film loses a bit of steam for me, as Jennifer's revenge becomes a bit over the top and torture porn-y, but I like the way the film focuses on the men and the way they're almost literally haunted by the spectre of what they've done. I don't know if I can say I enjoyed the film, but it was tremendously engaging.

The Walking Dead: This one is a little premature, as I've only seen the first episode. I like what I've seen so far.

I'm pretty much done with the zombie genre. It's completely overplayed, full of cliches, unoriginal, and entirely too prolific. Occasionally something clever comes along, but I have a hard time enjoying even the clever little variations to the genre.

I had believed that, in order to reinvent the genre, the next zombie film would have to radically alter the formula to the point where the old cliches simply couldn't happen. It turns out I was wrong and the real salvation for the genre is in bringing back the humanity to the genre.

Frank Darabont is really good at injecting humanity into horror. His adaption of Stephen King's The Mist stands as one of the most touching, darkest horror movies of all time. He has a gift for intelligent, mature, emotionally rich storytelling and watching his stuff makes you realize just how rare those traits are in the genre. Watching The Walking Dead reminds me that all you need to make a stale genre interesting again is to create compelling drama amid the bloodshed.

I'm not a huge fan of the comic book. I think Robert Kirkman is in desperate need of an editor and his characters spend a lot of time coldly explaining their feelings towards one another. I think The Walking Dead fits best in Darabont's hands and I defy anyone to watch the scene of the man hesitating to shoot the reanimated corpse of his wife to not be moved. Zombie movies are ultimately about what death means to us. It's an amazing start and I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

A Special Place: I don't really buy Dexter.

Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of the show. I've been with it since the beginning and I will probably devote an article to my observations at some point in the future, but I have a very hard time believing a man like Dexter could ever exist. The circumstances that created the character amount to a sort of perfect storm, one that could almost never be repeated in the real world, specifically the notion that a cop father would recognize the signs of sociopathy in his son and train him to be some sort of invisible avenger. It's a cute concept for TV, but seems as unlikely as a kid getting bit by a radioactive spider and becoming a superhero.

A Special Place seems almost to be an answer to Dexter, centering around a much more likely possibility of an older serial killer recognizing the same traits in a younger family member.

Apparently A Special Place is a side-story to a longer work written by Peter Straub. Some of you may be gobsmacked by this, but for a die-hard horror fanatic, I have never read a Peter Straub book. He looms large in the genre. I never deliberately avoided him but we simply never had the opportunity to cross paths. I enjoyed the hell out of A Special Place. The lead characters come off the way you'd expect real psychopaths to behave, their poor willing victim seems almost tailor-made for annihilation, and the boy's poor mother is especially compelling as she tries to reach out to her doomed son. It's a fantastic read and I need to pick up more of Straub's work.

Anyway, I doubt this will be the last hiatus I wind up taking. Sometimes life gets in the way. But I think I'm gonna get back in the swing of regular contributing, if for no other reason than I like writing about this stuff and I think I'm pretty good at it.